One-Minute Book Reviews

May 9, 2009

Tom Disch’s ‘The Genocides’ – One of the ‘100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels’ Involves an Ecological Catastrophe

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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Where are the science-fiction novels for sophisticated teenagers? You might wonder after reading Stephenie Meyer’s bestseller about aliens, The Host, which is written at a fourth-grade reading level. You’ll find answers in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A&C Black, 2006), written by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison with foreword by Christopher Priest.

Among the novels tapped by the authors: The Genocides (Vintage, 160 pp.,$12.95) by the late Tom Disch. Andrews and Rennison write:

“When unseen aliens decide to claim Earth for themselves, they sow the planet with seeds that grow into massive plants which begin to destroy the ecosystem. The plants adapt swiftly whenever new toxins are used against them and civilization itself begins to crumble. Then huge spherical incinerating machines descend to raze the cities, clearing the way for the extraterrestrial crop’s full bloom. Following the struggles of a small American community as they try to survive the onslaught of the alien agriculturalists by burrowing into the roots of the monstrous vegetables, The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can human beings have against beings who consider us nothing more than garden pests? Using John W. Campbell’s approach to pursuing an idea to its inescapable conclusion while refusing to conform to the psychologically dissatisfying conclusion invasion stories have suffered from since The War of the Worlds, Tom Disch had the audacity to defy decades of convention, consequently producing a marvelous debut that both broke new ground and upset traditionalist SF fans.”

Andrews and Rennison add that despite his occasional “remoteness of tone,” Disch is “a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 5, 2009

Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Host’ Has a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Microsoft Word Statistics Show — For One More Day With Aliens

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 am
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The dust jacket says The Host is the “first novel for adults” by the author of the Twilight” series of vampire-romances for adolescents, but the readability statistics on Microsoft Word show that Stephenie Meyer is still writing at a fourth-grade level

The Host: A Novel. By Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown, 619 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Mysterious things happen in the books of Stephenie Meyer. Take The Host, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. The dust jacket calls the book Meyer’s “first novel for adults.” But right away you wonder: How can this be when the novel has a fourth-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word?

Not that you’d want your 9-year-old to have much to do with this creepily Freudian tale of a woman who is captured by aliens and wages a host-verses-graft struggle with the new “soul” the extraterrestrials have inserted into the base of her skull. The sexual undertones of the story need little elaboration. (“Would it hurt, having something put in your head?” a character wonders. Kids, ask your mothers!) Let’s just say that the book has more than one “insertion” involving a soul that looked like “a silver ribbon” or “slid smoothly into the offered space.”

For all their repressed sexuality, the characters in The Host never seem to get beyond kissing. This is fortunate given that when lips do meet, Meyer describes it this way:

“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”

You can understand why the captured woman, Melanie Stryder, wouldn’t be in the mood for sex, although the Stockholm Syndrome strikes early in the novel. The aliens have conquered most of the earth and threaten to kill Melanie when she won’t obey Wanderer, the “soul” who inhabits her body. So she and Wanderer hide out in caves with a band of rogue humans who are resisting the takeover of the planet.

Tensions flare as the aliens search for the fugitives. These strains may explain why we often read that characters “barked,” “roared,” “groaned,” “howled,” “muttered,” “growled,” or “bellowed.” Aliens do their share of this. (“I groaned internally,” a “soul” says.) But no one can accuse the novel of portraying extraterrestrials unsympathetically. Meyer spares no effort to show how her aliens are different from – and, in many ways, better than — humans, one of which is that they can decide when to die. “It’s a choice,” an alien says. “A voluntary choice.” Just like, presumably, the “voluntary choice” Meyer made to pad this book with many redundancies.

For all of the overexplaining, some things remain unclear. If this is a novel “for adults,” why does the story reassure you that despite the alien takeover, the planet still has soccer games, Snickers and Pop-Tarts? (Why not golf, Chardonnay and goat cheese?) Why do most of the references to sex read like parodies? (One romantic scene – which could be describing a kiss or more – makes lovers sound like candidates a burn unit: “Gasoline and an open flame – we exploded again.”) And why is the book written at a fourth-grade reading level when Meyer was apparently hoping to attract more fans than the teenagers who read her popular “Twilight” vampire series?

The trouble with all of this isn’t that Meyer is a writer of books for adolescents who has tried to move into the mainstream. Many writers – E. B. White, C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle among them – have written beautifully for both groups. Nor is the problem that grown-ups can’t enjoy novels written for younger people. Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, draws on such extensive research into the Revolutionary War that many adults might learn as much from it as children would.

The Host offers further evidence of the Mitch Albom-ization of America — the glut of dumbed-down books masquerading as profound or at least intelligent. On the evidence of this novel, Meyer lacks either the ability or the inclination to adapt her writing for adults. The flap copy says that The Host is about “the very essence” – not the essence but the “very” essence – “of what it means to be human.” Midway through the book, you find a more revealing line, one that shows Meyer’s love of short sentences consisting of words of one- and two-syllables. Pursued by an angry human, Melanie’s resident soul says: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Best line: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” If taken as advice.

Worst line: Lots of competition here. No. 1: “It’s a voluntary choice.” No. 2: “When we thought of the new planet – Earth, so dry, so varied, and filled with such violent, destructive denizens we could barely imagine them — our horror was overshadowed by our excitement. Stories spun themselves quickly around the thrilling new subject. The wars – our kind! having to fight! – were first reported accurately and then embellished and fictionalized.” No. 3: And here’s how a “denizen” named Uncle Jeb speaks: “ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’” No. 4: The line quoted in the review, beginning, “He nuzzled.”

About the reading level: The reading level for The Host comes from the Flesch-Kindcaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. To find it, I used passages of at least 300 words each on pages 31–32 (Grade 4.1), 131–132 (Grade 4.6) and 431-432 (Grade 3.3). The reading levels for the three sections averaged Grade 4.0. American children typically begin the fourth grade at the age of nine. The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of other bestselling or classic novels and tells how to use Word. It tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Published: May 2008

About the author: Stephenie Meyer also wrote Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse for young adults.

Answer to Friday’s quiz, “Do You Have What It Takes to Write a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller?”: All of the lines on Friday’s quiz appear in The Host.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 8, 2008

A New Definition of Science Fiction (Quote of the Day / Bookseller Stephen E. Andrews)

Filed under: Fantasy,Quotes of the Day,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:32 am
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Few questions will start an argument among science-fiction fans faster than, “What is the definition of science fiction?” More than 30 years ago, Michael Crichton wrote in The Critic As Artist (Liveright, 1972): “As a category, the borders of science fiction have always been poorly defined, and they are getting worse. The old distinction between science fiction and fantasy – that science fiction went from the known to the probable, and fantasy dealt with the impossible – is now wholly ignored.”

But if the old distinction doesn’t work, what does? Here’s a proposed new definition of science fiction from Stephen E. Andrews, a bookseller and co-editor of 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels: Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides Series (A&C Black, 2007)

“SF is the literature that suggests the significant, scientifically explicable changes that may potentially occur in the sphere of human knowledge and experience, exploring how they might affect our minds, bodies and culture.”

For more on this topic see “What Is The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved. and

July 8, 2008

Thomas Disch (1940–2008), Author of ‘The Brave Little Toaster’

Filed under: Fantasy,News,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:18 pm
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‘One of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America’ dies at 68

Thomas Disch, author of The Brave Little Toaster and other books, died Friday in Manhattan. Douglas Martin reported in the New York Times that he shot himself after a series of personal setbacks

“Mr. Disch’s work was voluminous and included many forms and genres,” Martin wrote. “In addition to writing speculative fiction (his preferred term for science fiction), he wrote poetry from light to lyric to dramatic; realist fiction, children’s fiction and historical fiction; opera librettos and plays; criticism of theater, films and art; and even a video game.

“One of Mr. Disch’s best-known works is The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances (1986), in which a toaster, a clock radio and an electric blanket come to life. In the New York Times Book Review, Anna Quindlen said the book was more sophisticated than it seemed: ‘Buy it for your children; read it for yourself,’ she advised.”

Disch also wrote The Genocides, which Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison named one of the “100 must-read science fiction novels” in a recent guide to the genre. The book centers on aliens who sow the Earth with seeds that grow into giant plants, which begin to destroy the planet’s ecological balance and undermine civilization.

The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can humanity have against beings who consider us to be nothing more than garden pests?” Andrews and Rennison say in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A & C Black, 2007). They add:

The Genocides is packed with black wit, mordant observation of characters and the kind of self-consciousness present in the very best contemporary art. This was the start of a glittering career for Disch, whose novels, poetry and criticism have won him considerable acclaim … Despite his occasional remoteness of tone, Disch is nevertheless a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 17, 2008

The Two ‘Must-Read’ Science Fiction Novels Published Since 2000 Are ‘Super-Cannes’ and ‘Altered Carbon,’ Editors Say

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Except for a few books by H. G. Wells and others, most science-fiction classics were published in the 20th century. How many essential novels in the genre have appeared since 2000?

Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison name only two in their 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A & C Black, 294 pp., $8.95, paperback), part of the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides series. Here are their choices and part of their explanation for them:

Super-Cannes (Picador, 400 pp., $15, paperback) by J. G. Ballard: In the near future or maybe the present, publisher Paul Sinclair visits an emerging corporate utopia on the French Riviera and finds that “a new kind of cathartic brutality is arising from a most unexpected source.” Andrews and Rennison say that although Ballard has written only one pure science fiction novel, Hello America, since the late 1960s: “Super-Cannes is masterful speculation in social science that can arguably be claimed for the genre.” First published in 2000. Foreword by Christopher Priest.

Altered Carbon: A Takeshi Kovacs Novel (Del Rey, 544 pp., $7.99, paperback) by Richard K. Morgan: Andrews and Rennison call Altered Carbon “authentic cyberbpunk” that envisions a future in which only the poor die: “the majority of people have their personality backed up regularly and recorded in microstacks embedded in the flesh at the back of the neck, ready to be retrieved and ‘resleeved’ in a new body” that had belonged to someone else. “Much has been made of the book’s debt to noir fiction, but a contemporary hard-boiled writer like James Crumley would be a more fitting comparison than the more chivalric Raymond Chandler, given Morgan’s penchant for extreme violence, explicit sex and Gordian-knot plotting,” the authors say. First published 2002.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 16, 2008

Three Essential Works of 20th-Century Science Fiction — What Are Their 21st-Century Counterparts?

Filed under: Classics,Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:37 pm
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Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. William Gibson’s Neuromancer. All of these 20th-century books made a list of “100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels” published in a recent guide to the genre. What essential works of science fiction have appeared so far in the 21st century? The answer will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews with comments from the guide defending the choices. Hint: The authors say there are only two.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 18, 2008

The Impact of Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008) Recalled by Three-Time Caldecott Medal Winner David Wiesner

Filed under: Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:36 pm
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Arthur C. Clarke, who has died at the age of 90, got little respect from some literary critics, who dismissed him as a writer of futuristic potboilers. But his science-fiction influenced some of the most respected authors of our time. They include David Wiesner, who honored Clarke’s best-known novel in The Art of Reading: 40 Illustrators Celebrate RIF’s 40th Anniversary, in which popular artists re-envision a scene from a favorite book. Wiesner chose to re-imagine one from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a book that had captivated him in his youth: He’d seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie version, and when he saw the novel in a book-club catalog, he had to have it.

“The book turned out to be as fantastic and absorbing as the movie, and I couldn’t put it down,” he says in The Art of Reading. He was “fascinated by the way the same idea had been presented in two different mediums, one visual and one literary.” He’s still fascinated by such links: In 2007 Wiesner, one of America’s most admired children’s authors, won his third Caldecott Medal for Flotsam, a picture book about a boy who finds a magical camera.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 14, 2008

Orson Scott Card Wins Lifetime Achievement From Librarians for His Science Fiction Novels for Teenagers, ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘Ender’s Shadow’

Orson Scott Card has won the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for “his outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens” for his novels Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. The ALA said that Card “weaves the everyday experiences of adolecence into broader narratives, addressing universal questions about humanity and society.” The organization added:

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, both published by Tor Books, present a future where a global government trains gifted young children from around the world in the art of interstellar warfare, hoping to find a leader whose skills can prevent a second attack upon humanity by the insect-like aliens descriptively nicknamed ‘buggers.’ Young Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin may be the savior they seek. He is not alone, as seen in the companion tale, Ender’s Shadow, where orphaned Bean relates his own Battle School experiences. Just as the stories of Ender and Bean are paralleled in the novels, their experiences echo those of teens, beginning as children navigating in an adult world and growing into a state of greater awareness of themselves, their communities and the larger universe.”

Card’s most recent novel is the Christmas tale A War of Gifts: An Ender Story, a 2007 novel that takes place during Ender’s early years at the Battle School, where students are forbidden to celebrate religious holidays.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 6, 2007

Science Fiction for Teenage Boys – Books David Wiesner and Brian Selznick Loved When They Were Young

[Note: The books mentioned in this review aren’t just for boys. But — as any librarian will tell you — it can be harder to find books for teenage boys than for just about anyone else. And many people visit this site looking specifically for books for boys. So I’ve put the word “boys” in the title of this post to make their search easier — not because Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury wouldn’t also delight many girls.]

Two of America’s most popular illustrators talk about books that captivated them in junior high or high school

By Janice Harayda

If you’re looking for books that teenage boys will love, why not take a tip from two former teenagers beloved by boys?

Two of American’s most popular picture-book artists talk about books that influenced them in adolescence in The Art of Reading: Forty Illustrators Celebrate RIF’s 40th Anniversary (Dutton, $19.99), a book inspired by the literacy organization Reading Is Fundamental, with a foreword by Leonard S. Marcus.

Brian Selznick loved Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction classic The Martian Chronicles when he was 14. Selznick calls the book “a collection of stories that form a narrative of man’s first visits to Mars and the eventual colonization of the planet.” He especially liked the Martians Yll and his wife, Ylla, “who dreams of strange men from the uninhabitable planet Earth (too much oxygen to support life!).”

David Wiesner was captivated by Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wiesner had seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie version. And when he saw the novel in a book-club catalog, he decided had to have it.

“The book turned out to be as fantastic and absorbing as the movie, and I couldn’t put it down,” he says in The Art of Reading. Wiesner was “fascinated by the way the same idea had been presented in two different mediums, one visual and one literary.” And he’s still exploring the links between the two. Wiesner won this year’s Caldecott Medal for Flotsam, a picture book about a boy who finds a magical camera.

Furthermore: Selnick wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 2007 bestseller for roughly ages 9-to-11. He illustrated the Caldecott Honor book, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley. Wiesner won Caldecott Medals for The Three Pigs and Tuesday before receiving his third for Flotsam In The Art of Reading they re-envision scenes from their favorite books.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 26, 2007

What is a Classic? Quote of the Day #9

Filed under: Classics,Quotes of the Day,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 pm

Italo Calvino on classic books …

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Italo Calvino in “Why Read the Classics?,” translated by Patrick Creagh. As quoted in Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (Yale University Press, 2005), edited by Gary Westfahl, with a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke.

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